I’ve spent most of my adult working life as a pastor. Some of that time has been in university student ministry, some as an associate pastor in a denominational church, some as an itinerant evangelist, some as the senior pastor of a staff team in an independent church, and most recently I’m back to being an associate pastor again. Most of that time I’ve faced the pressures and concerns that come with the responsibility of pastoring God’s people. I’ve felt that the buck stops with me. I’m the one who has to be there for others. That’s my job.
Much of the time I was probably guilty of going at things too hard. I’d burn the candle at both ends and oscillate between adrenaline and exhaustion. I’d push too hard and get sick on at least an annual basis. There were times when I was probably burnt out. I didn’t want to see people, face decisions, or try anything new. I couldn’t cope with questions or criticism. I felt that I had very little to offer. Sometimes I found myself barely holding on, seemingly going through the motions.
I suspect that my experiences of being a pastor are not that unusual. Researchers tell me that there are as many ex-pastors in Australia as there are pastors. How can we change this? How can we support our pastors? Whose job is it to pastor the pastor?
Different churches have their standard answers to this question. Most denominations would see it falling to designated people and organisations within their denomination. Those with bishops might see it as the bishop’s job. Those with presbyteries might see it as the presbytery’s job. Those with employed chaplains, supervisors, or mentors might see it as the responsibility of these people. There can be great strengths in the relationships and networks offered by denominations. Pastors can rally alongside each other, resources can be deployed for the benefit of supporting pastoral staff, accountability can be built in through committees and structures. However, when it comes to pastoring the pastor, the Bible’s emphasis lies elsewhere. It’s not to be outsourced to the denomination, or the sole domain of a committee or board, but embraced by each church.
Here are a few ideas from a couple of Scripture passages about how churches can be supporting those involved in pastoral leadership…
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. (1 Timothy 5:17)
The Apostle Paul has been speaking in this letter about giving honour to a range of different people. Here he addresses the church leaders. They are to be honoured, in fact double honoured. This can mean nothing less than elders within the church being valued, appreciated, supported, and upheld by their congregations. I’m an Aussie, and the Aussie way is to speak against, cut down, and undermine those in positions of authority. It’s a national sport! But, it shouldn’t be this way in our churches. God calls us to do a good job of honouring our leaders.
19 Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 20 But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. (1 Timothy 5:19-20)
There is no place for unsubstantiated criticism of our pastors. Gossip, innuendo, insinuation, smear campaigns, staging coups… are all out of place among God’s people. And yet they keep on happening. The deacons are unhappy with the pastor, so they start counting votes. Small groups grumble about their minister. People leave a church, critical of the leadership, and carry on about it in the new church (where they stay for a while, until they leave and badmouth the next one). Words and accusations can wreak much destruction. Elders of churches are to be held accountable for their words and actions, but they are not to be subject to trial by gossip.
17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. 18 For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’ (1 Timothy 5:17-18)
Going back to the ‘double honour’ idea, the following verse makes it clear that the honour also includes support or financial provision. It’s the concept of honorarium, recognising the significance of the elder’s ministry by supporting them to do it. We are not saying that all pastor’s must be paid, but that it is important for churches to show that they value those who lead them. If a church has agreed to support and pay for its pastor, then it should seek to do this thoroughly, not begrudgingly. Only last week, I listened to the sad story of a minister who was ‘starved’ out of his ministry by the church he served. Pastors shouldn’t be in it for the money, but neither should churches. How much more encouraging for a pastor to be respected and well supported by a church who gives them double honour.
Freeing the pastor from financial concerns enables them to go about their work. They can devote themselves to the word of God, to prayer, to equipping the church for ministry, without the need to add another job to pay the bills. My experience of being a pastor is that there is more than enough to fill all my time, without having to pay my own way on top of it. If I had to, then I would, but I’m grateful to our church for providing us the support we’ve needed.
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)
Ultimately, we’re called to follow Jesus. This is what it is to be a Christian. But following Jesus also involves us following our leaders, inasmuch as they are following Jesus. Pastors, elders, leaders are called to teach and model putting God’s word into practice. They’re to be examples of trusting in Jesus and progressing in the Christian life. And the congregation is not to forget this. They’re to join with their leaders in living transformed lives.
They say you’re not a leader unless people are following you. If you look over your shoulder, and find no one there, then you’re not leading people, you’re just going for a walk! On the other hand, it’s very encouraging to see people taking the journey with you. People walking the talk, changing their thinking, their words, and their behaviour. This brings great joy and encouragement.
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
It’s a big responsibility being a pastor. In the original language these verses describe literally ‘watching out for people’s souls’. The leaders or overseers are given the responsibility of being spiritual lifeguards. So please make their job easier. Swim between the flags! Listen as they teach you the life-saving word of God and take it to heart. The congregation have the capacity to make the pastor’s life misery on the one hand, or joy on the other. What do you think will bring greatest benefit to the pastor and the church?
18 Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honourably in every way. 19 I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon. (Hebrews 13:18-19)
Like the Apostle Paul, the writer to the Hebrews asks people to pray for him. He understands that God alone is able to equip and sustain him, and so he calls others to pray for him. When people asked Charles Spurgeon the secret of his success in ministry, he humbly replied, “My people pray for me.” And he meant it. As I look back on many years as a pastor, I am thankful to God that people have prayed for me. Some people have faithfully, diligently, consistently asked God to be at work in me and through me. The church has made a commitment to uphold it’s leaders in prayer, and I am very grateful.
The writer to the Hebrews finishes his letter with these words…
20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)
This prayer points us to the ultimate pastor. Here is the one who truly pastors all pastors. Jesus Christ is the great shepherd (or pastor) of the sheep. And the same God who powerfully raised Jesus from the dead is the one who will equip and sustain pastors for faithful and fruitful ministry. What an awesome promise! What an awesome privilege! Congregations and pastors – let’s keep humbly depending upon God in prayer.